Calypso gets a facelift
In 1966, the American producer David L Wolper approached Jacques Cousteau with the idea of making a TV series, but after visiting his vessel Calypso, Wolper became somewhat disappointed. “It looks like shit!” he said.
Everything needed to be streamlined on television in the USA during an era in which clean-cut NASA astronauts in sparkling white space-suits were the nation’s biggest heroes.
One of the many interesting panels inside the Heian Maru. The face of the middle dial in the lowest row reads, “Burmeister & Wain – Kjöbenhavn [Copenhagen]”.
It was Wolper’s idea to pimp up Calypso and the crew with the stylised wetsuits, the yellow helmets with radio communication and to wrap their aqualungs in streamlined plastic casings.
Cousteau took Wolper’s space-age look and ran with it. Calypso got a much-needed facelift and was transformed into a floating TV studio with a huge capital injection from the ABC network.
The Undersea Adventures of Jacques Cousteau became a hugely popular series and ran all over the world from 1966 to 1976. The team and the producers were always on the look-out for new adventures, and Truk caught Cousteau’s attention when he read an article in the Los Angeles Times by syndicated US journalist Charles Hillinger.
Hillinger knew about Truk from his time on US aircraft-carriers in the Pacific theatre during WW2. On 26 May, 1969, the LA Times carried the first newspaper story about the Truk wrecks under the headline Sunken Japanese Fleet Lie Untouched in Lagoon of Truk.
A few days later the journalist received a call from Cousteau, asking detailed questions. It’s fair to speculate that Cousteau felt a sense of urgency. He wanted to be the first to plant the diving flag in Truk.
Another highlight of the trip is our exploration of Heian Maru, the largest wreck in the lagoon. The 163m ship rests on its port side in 35m and is very easy to identify, as the name can clearly be read on the stern – both in Western letters and Japanese characters.
Before the war, she was carrying 300 passengers and cargo across the Pacific. But when war became reality, she was converted into a submarine tender.
Our rebreathers are a big advantage inside the wrecks, where exhalation bubbles would have produced a rusty rain that can compromise the visibility and, at worst, make it difficult to find the exit. Our navigation is disadvantaged by the fact that the wreck is resting on its side, so it’s difficult to maintain a mental picture of which is up and which down.
Aaron moves slowly and carefully in front of me. I stop to take photos of exciting details. This engine-room is a treasure-trove of rusty relics, and we cheer loudly in our rebreather mouthpieces as we find legible displays, intact gauges and weird configurations of twisted pipes and hand-wheels.
Large panels of electrical knife-switches look like something straight out of an old Frankenstein movie. Fans of the steam-punk style would have a blast here. We’re in a haunted house of twisted ladders, stairs and gangways.
On the face of a big dial, I can clearly read “Burmeister & Wain – Kjöbenhavn (Copenhagen)”. For more than a century, B&W was a leading Danish producer of diesel engines.
We could easily spend the whole dive in here, but it’s time to return before we venture too deep inside the narrow and twisted passages.
And we also need time to investigate the enormous lance torpedoes and the pile of spare U-boat periscopes that Heian Maru was carrying. An epic dive.
The Cousteau expedition arrived in Micronesia less than two months after Truk was outed in the press. The crew didn’t have time to make the long journey in the famed Calypso, so a local tugboat, the Hopeful, was hired.
Most of the identities of the wrecks the team dived were unknown or unconfirmed. They used the knowledge of local fishermen, eyewitness accounts, sonar, maps and spotter-planes to locate the wrecks. Some were visible from the surface, while others were revealed by oil slicks or the gasoline smell.
The technology and know-how that the Cousteau team brought into the lagoon made it possible to map and properly explore the wrecks for the first time.
Eight weeks later, the team had logged 480 dives on 33 wrecks.
Papa Cousteau flew in to sprinkle a little stardust over the footage, but he stayed in Truk for only a few days. This was a Philippe Cousteau operation.
Controversially, the Cousteau expedition not only left with hundreds of hours of 16mm footage in colour, but also with several crates of artefacts for “study”. They didn’t share the positions of the wrecks with anybody, and the relics ended up in the Cousteau estate, more pawns in the eternal legal battles in the family.
The Truk episode aired in May, 1971, as part of The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau. I probably saw Lagoon of Lost Ships for the first time late in the 1970s, but I distinctly remember the sequence in which the team dives a wreck with human bones and skulls inside.
The voice-over claims that the wreck is at 300ft (92m) but the ship was probably the Aikoku Maru, which rests in 64m, and the superstructure where the captain’s chest, shoe and cap were found are likely to have been not much deeper than 50m.
Still a deep-air dive, but a little more achievable than 300ft. A little exaggeration now and then for added drama was not uncommon in the Cousteau documentaries.
Many of the merchant ships are of the same type. Before the war, the civilian Japanese shipping industry was heavily subsidised by the Empire and many private cargo vessels were designed – at the polite request of the rulers – so that they could easily be converted for military purposes should war break out. Other vessels were simply confiscated by the Ministry of War.
The Japanese convention for naming ships differed from the western tradition. Warships were never named after people. Merchant vessels always include the word Maru, but why is unclear.
Some suggest that it can mean “circle”, and that it symbolises something perfect or complete, but as it also means round or even chubby, Maru was often used as an affectionate nickname for slightly overweight kids!